Seek roses in December — ice in June;
Hope constancy in wind, or corn in chaff;
Believe a woman or an epitaph,
Or any other thing that’s false, before
You trust in critics who themselves are sore.
Asking someone else’s opinion about my writing is hard for me. I’ve had some deeply wounding experiences.
When I took a writing class in college, instead of gently explaining that I didn’t understand what poetry is and should give it another try, the professor wrote on my paper: “Never do anything like this ever again. EVER!”
This is a paraphrase. While I refuse to look at that old assignment to get the quote exactly right, I can assure you, these words are damn close to the actual comment. We remember the words that cut, every syllable of them. These words, and others like them, made me turn my back on my dream of being a writer. But the dream turned out to be stronger than the shame.
Many years later, a friend who takes writing seriously read a draft of my first novel as though it were the final polished work. She had some good things to say, but mostly she picked apart everything that needed work. The comment I remember best compared my admittedly cliché ending to a Hollywood movie. A bad, embarrassing, B-grade Hollywood movie.
I spent most of the day I got her comments crying on the sofa. I didn’t write again for several years.
Both experiences have taught me to choose my critics with care.
The professor had different standards for writing than I did. He expected lofty, artistic literature and I was writing science fiction stories. I admit, they were bad science fiction stories, but they looked even worse when compared with Hemingway and Woolf.
My friend also dreamed of being a writer but was doing other things with her life. I can’t remember who warns against getting a critique from a writer who is not writing, but it is excellent advice. A writer who is not writing takes out her frustration on your work.
Now I give my drafts to a friend who loves my stories, reads lots of books like the books I write, and who is a thoughtful reader. I also give her lots of warnings (“This draft is an ugly mess.”) and an idea of what I want back (“Tell me what you noticed.”).
She has been an excellent critic for me, because she is honest but gentle. She tells me what she likes or even loves about my story but she also points out where things are wobbly or don’t make sense. She makes suggestions about how I might carry forward, some of which are ideas that intrigue me, though some conflict strongly with my vision for the work.
Maybe she is too gentle, but I don’t care about that right now. I am grateful to be able to get any kind of feedback without winding up crippled on the sofa, afraid to pick up a pen ever again. I’ve already lost years recovering from the doubts caused by harsh and thoughtless criticism. I can’t afford to waste any more time.
I know there are more negative criticisms and unpleasant words in my future. I will not always have control over who comments on my work. But for now, while my work is in its delicate infancy, I am choosing my critics with care.
Have you had bad critical experiences? Did they leave you with deep wounds? What have you learned to do differently as a result?